Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a child prodigy capable of improvising counter-melody by age two. She taught herself to read at age three, and at four, she composed three waltzes for piano during a summer at her grandfather's farm in West Henniker, NH, despite the absence of a piano; instead, she composed the pieces mentally and played them when she returned home. She made her public debut as a pianist in 1883, also the year of her first published compositions.
Known as the first female composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (her “Gaelic” Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896), she was also one of the first U.S. composers – along with Edward MacDowell – to have their music recognized and lauded in Europe, and the first classical U.S. composer to achieve success without the benefit of European study.
She made one performance per year with the proceeds donated to charity, but following the death of her husband in 1910, she resumed performing, and toured Europe to great acclaim, performing her own music, until the onset of WWI. Her works, published under the name “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach” include her Mass in E-flat, Op. 5 (performed by the Handel and Haydn society in 1892), a Violin Sonata, Op. 34 (1896), a Piano Quintet, Op. 67 (1907), Theme and Variations for Flute and String Quartet, Op. 80 (1916), a String Quartet, Op. 89 (1929), the opera Cabildo, Op. 149 (1932), a Piano Trio, Op. 150 (1938), a wide range of choral music both sacred and secular, many songs, and a vast amount of music for piano (ranging from works for children to large pieces of the highest virtuosity).
Later in life she spent most summers composing at the MacDowell, encouraging many of the younger women composers she met here to call her “Aunt Amy.” At her death she left more than 300 published works, and more of her music has been published in recent decades. She declared MacDowell as holder of her copyright, and all royalties from her music aid in its operations.
Portrait courtesy of UNH archive